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Wal-Mart talk still going strong in Cherokee

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

In the meat aisle of the Reservation Foodliner IGA a customer picks up a large pack of bacon, and calls out to a store employee.

“How much do you think this’d be at Wal-Mart?” the customer asks sarcastically.

“Oh, about five dollars,” the employee replies.

With Cherokee tribal leaders working to attract a Wal-Mart shopping center to the area, the store has become a hot topic of discussion in store aisles, parking lots, and households both on and off the reservation. It seems as though there isn’t anyone who has not at least heard that negotiations are underway.

Cherokee tribal officials have said that it’s too early to tell whether or not Wal-Mart will build a store in the area.

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“It’s just under evaluation,” said Brenda Occumma, Deputy Financial Officer for the Eastern Band. “It’s really too early to even talk seriously about.”

But area residents are talking, most often about whether a new store would be located on reservation lands or at another site such as the northern tip of Jackson County along Highway 441. Reservation lands cannot be privately owned, meaning that if Wal-Mart wanted to own its own property it would have to purchase a tract across the Jackson County line.

However, Jackson County Chamber of Commerce director Julie Spiro seemed to echo Occumma’s sentiments that negotiations with the chain store are in their earliest stages, as Spiro said she knew little about the deal.

“We have not been contacted about it whatsoever,” Spiro said.

Cherokee Economic Development Commission director Mickey Duvall said that Tribe officials are trying to keep negotiations quiet and out of the press, waiting until a deal is closer to completion to give community members a chance to comment.

If the store was located within Jackson County, it could possibly lead to an increase in sales tax collected for the county. The shoppers who no longer chose to drive to Sylva to go to Wal-Mart still would be shopping within the county and the new Wal-Mart most likely would attract new customers from the Cherokee area.

“The town of Sylva would probably still see an increase too,” said Darlene Fox, county finance administrator.

Point-of-purchase and per capita sales taxes are collected then redistributed from the state to counties and municipalities. A sales tax gain for the county would thereby translate to an increase for the municipalities within the county.

Wal-Mart is said to be looking at the figures, trying to figure out if there are enough full-time residents in the Cherokee area to support a store.

“I think we have the permanent traffic,” Occumma said.

An IGA employee disagreed.

“There is not enough people to support a Super Wal-Mart,” said an IGA employee, who didn’t want to anger members of tribal government and wished not to be identified. “Tourists don’t come to shop at Wal-Mart. I hate to even think one’s coming.”

While tourists may not come to shop at Wal-Mart, members of the community are leaving and driving to Sylva’s Super Wal-Mart to shop. The reservation has few retail stores to supply day-to-day needs such as hair dryers or birthday presents, and those stores that are there are small.

Growing the business community is one of Cherokee leaders’ focuses.

“Our new chief, Michelle Hicks, one of his major initiatives was economic development so we have been talking to a lot of folks,” Occumma said.

Although Occumma said she could not name the businesses being scouted to come to Cherokee, she said it was a mix of retail, restaurants and other services. With larger commercial uses perhaps coming to the area, Occumma said that improving local, small businesses also was a part of the economic development plan.

“We don’t want to negatively impact small businesses,” Occumma said.

But working to bring large retail chains in almost inevitably will put a damper on local business.

“Now Wal-Mart I think does have good prices and I think maybe it’s hurt a lot of little businesses,” said Freda Brown, a Whittier resident.

NAPA Auto Parts employee Scott Gunter agreed. Wal-Mart could most likely sell things like oil cheaper and thereby take customers away. While Gunter said he could perhaps see a need for the store, he doesn’t often patronize the Wal-Mart in Sylva.

“I try not to go to Wal-Mart,” Gunter said. “There are so many people there.”

One of those people is Brown, who frequently drives to Wal-Mart.

“Sometimes three or four times a week, I love to go there,” Brown said.

Brown gets most of her services in Sylva — her doctor and her pharmacy are there, as are the library and courthouse, and other stores. A closer Wal-Mart wouldn’t necessarily change her shopping habits, as she has to go to Sylva anyway.

For Kevin Linkinhoker though a Wal-Mart in Cherokee would cut his driving time in half. A resident of Bryson City, Linkinhoker, who spent a recent Friday afternoon driving around Cherokee posting flyers advertising handyman services, said he would definitely shop at Cherokee-based Wal-Mart. Currently he drives to Sylva to do his shopping.

“Mainly we go to Wal-Mart,” he said.

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